It has been some time since I have written a blog post which I apologize for. So much has been happening here with the Day Star International School project that I haven’t had the time to sit down and write! As promised, I want to use this post to give updates on the project and some thoughts I have had over the past few weeks.
DAY STAR ACADEMY PROJECT
::: Desks :::
This was the first part of the project which I started. After picking up all the wood, cement and roofing sheets from the Kasoa market and being stopped by the police twice for bribes, we were able to deliver the wood to the carpenter to make the desks. From cutting the wood to planing it, everything is by hand and it was really cool to watch these desks take shape. Immediately, I took a liking to the carpenter because he was the first one not to ask for money upfront. Apparently he is close with Hayford, the owner of the school and gave us a really good price to make the desks. After three days, we had 12 beautiful new desks for the students. Now there are enough desks for each student to sit comfortably in a proper sized desk.
::: Roof :::
Before the desks were completed, I had another carpenter put on the missing sections of roof. Not only does it make the building look more complete, but it keeps the students dry now that it is the rainy season. We still have to put a roof on the toilet because there was a “misunderstanding” with this carpenter about the work that needed to be done. I have since asked the desk carpenter to finish the bathroom roof and supporting structure.
::: Blocks :::
Before we could reposition and paint the walls, we wanted to improve the concrete cinderblock around the school that makes up the base of the walls. The classrooms previously without a roof had incomplete walls which were unsightly and didn’t keep out the rain. We used five bags of cement to make blocks and raised all the walls to the same height.
::: Paint :::
Paint was the easy part of this project. Before we started, the desk carpenter volunteered to reposition the wooden planks that makeup the walls at the school. They were mostly crooked with large gaps in between some of them. Using excess wood that was removed to make room for more cinderblocks, we completed the walls to looks better, keep the rain out and to keep students focused instead of peeking out the cracks!
::: Other Projects ::
For months now I have wanted to start a farm. Originally I wanted to do it for the parents of our sponsored students as an alternative income source. This turned out too costly for the organization and needed much more support than it was capable of giving. When I had my first meeting with the teachers of Day Star International School, one of them suggested a school garden or farm and I jumped at the chance! Not only would it be able to teach kids skills to help provide for themselves, it is also something they can look at and feel proud about. Everyone in the school has contributed in some way to the farm. When I am working in Senya on weekends, kids will stop by and help without me even asking. A lot of the time children who don’t even attend the school help out! For the first year, we have planted maize, pepper, tomatoes and okra. Hopefully this will all be added to the students lunches once harvest time comes!
This is what we found after we cleared the bush!
After some clean-up!
Sunday Clean-Up Crew
Seeds are sown!
First maize sprout
Most schools in Ghana also provide lunch for their students. The fees for this are collected as a separate ‘canteen fee’ in addition to the school fees. In Day Star’s case, 70 pesewas out of 1 Cedi per day go to the feeding fee – think 70 cents from a dollar. The other 30 pesewas go to the school fees. Canteens are usually managed by women who work as a separate entity from the school. In this case, the women have been buying their supplies piecemeal from suppliers in Senya instead of buying in bulk at the Kasoa market. Not only does this mess up the schools finances because they ask for money every day, but it costs almost double because they are buying in small quantities rather than at the market. To put them on a level footing, I bought all the supplies they need for a month and told them that the school would only dispense funds at the end of each month based on the number of students who have ate.
Throughout this whole process, I have been training Hayford on basic bookkeeping methods and how to better manage the schools money. We set up a bank account for the school which only allows him to withdraw money with the signature of a colleague of mine here at CHF. This puts come checks in the system so he is not able to spend the money freely as soon as he collects it. It also allows us to see if he is depositing the money as often as he should and if any disappears from the time it is collected to the time he makes it to the bank.
Books were purchased on Monday for the entire school. I was trying to get in touch with some distributors to see if I could get a better price for them but all the prices are pretty much the same after you factor in transportation. Checking in on the classrooms today, I saw many of the students reading while they were on break. It was such a good feeling to see this and receive a visual “thank you” after working non-stop this month to get everything together.
Seeing students skip their break to read makes it all worth it.
For the past couple of months, I have been meeting with the current teachers to keep them informed on the changes with the school, asking for their input and evaluate how they fit into the long-term goals of the school. In addition, I also organized a PTA meeting where a handful of involved parent and a few curious adults without kids came to the school to share their ideas and listen to our plans. After observing for awhile and seeing how things run, Hayford and I decided to start looking for a couple of new teachers for next term. We believe that there will be a significant increase in enrollment and that two of the current teachers are not fit to teach based on their performance and behavior. We have started to interview new candidates and have scheduled times for them to give lessons so we can observe their ability in front of a class.
The adult literacy program that I had wanted to fund has been put on hold for now. I believe that having textbooks and reading books in the school takes priority right now. While the pieces are in place for the program to begin, the funding is just not there. Hopefully in the coming months I can work to raise more funds and get this program running while I am back in the US.
Before construction started on the school, my friend Kim from NJ came to visit. I didn’t know it at the time but it was the last chance to relax that I would have for a month! We went to Wli Falls and the Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary (second time for both) for her first excursion, and then to a beautiful beach in the Western Region for the second. It was nice to have someone from back home visit and I just hope I showed her as much of Ghana as you can in one week!
Teaching at DA Primary has been really fun this term. I told my students on their first day back that this was the last couple of months I had with them and that I was going to challenge them unlike any other teacher they have. Mostly I have been focusing on critical thinking skills using reading and writing comprehension activities. At the beginning of each class I am confronted with a group of confused faces telling me that they don’t understand and that they can’t do it. By the end of class I have a bunch of smiling students who have not only finished the assignment, but have usually done it better than they, or I, ever imagined. Putting on little skits is there new favorite and it always guarantees a little fun by the end of class. I am going to miss these kids more than anything else in Ghana. They always have kept me grounded and make me forget about anything else going on even if they are being a pain in the butt! I know that somehow, I will see some of them again.
Like I mentioned earlier, I organized a PTA meeting before starting on the improvements to the school. The big problem is Senya is that parents don’t value education. This not only is bad for the kid’s chances of escaping poverty, but holds the parents back from improving their skills, businesses and lives. While working with the Labour & Trafficking Project, I have been trying to get it to focus not only on the parents, but sensitize them to the importance of education, and how it can improve the situation for an entire family. Organizing this meeting was part of that effort and taught me a lot about how parents interact with schools. Firstly, I made the mistake of telling parents to get there when I actually wanted the meeting to start. With people running on Ghana time, I should have told them to get there and hour before I wanted to start the meeting so they would all be on time. Once we started, though, the meeting was very constructive. They were excited about the changes being made to the school and were happy that they were being kept in the loop. One thing that came out of the meeting was that the parents want the students to have Saturday classes. The parents also were very understanding of the financial situation and how the school fees are broken up.
Summertime at CHF means that there are a lot of new volunteers. This is part of the reason I stayed longer, to be able to train them, but it is also sad that I am leaving at a time of such great potential. Having extra minds and bodies here to help with all the things I have been bogged down with for the past four months is really nice. Much of the paper work that I have been putting off has been done and being able to ask for help on tasks really makes it easier for me to focus on driving projects forward instead of being overcome with the details. We are also lucky enough to have three Ghanaians interns here from the University of Ghana, Legon. Not only are they motivated to learn and try different things, but they speak Twi. We placed two of them in Day Star School to teach twice a week and they have been instrumental in making changes to how the school is run and report back to me about the status of the school/teachers.
University of Ghana Interns
June 12th was World Day Against Child Labour. To observe this day, CHF organized four schools where we sponsor children to have an activity day. We talked to them about the dangers and consequences of child labour and pitted the schools against each other to win a trophy. The activities included ampe, musical chairs, sack races, lime and spoon races, fill the bottle and of course, football. As expected, the main attraction was the football matches and they were very entertaining. Some people were surprised with how competitive the children were in the other activities, but this was for a trophy, and better yet, bragging rights! For prizes, we gave out story books to all the individual winners. All schools received a participation certificate, and the winner, Methodist Memorial School, won the football match and the trophy. It was a great day that the Labour & Trafficking team collaborated on and quickly put together after some volunteers/interns had only been here for a few days.
If all this wasn’t enough, we also held a couple of Labour & Trafficking informational talks at schools.
(Written June 1, 2013)
This past week I feel like I am back in the swing of things. Items are constantly being crossed off my “To Do” list and days are full with various appointments for my projects. If you follow this blog, you read that I am raising money for a roof, desks and paint for Day Star Academy and hopefully for an adult education program. Fundraising has been going well and I am eager to have the workers start on the improvements. This week I personally paid for some of the land in the schoolyard to be cleared so we can begin our school farm. It is the rainy season which means time is of the essence for farming and we can’t wait any longer to plant the seeds. I think I am feeling good again because these are my projects which I have thought of and put the wheels in motion. In recent months, I allowed myself to become distracted and was waiting for approval or for support in this organization. I strayed from what I love doing, from what I am good at which is making things happen and figuring it out along the way. For some reason I stopped doing that here, of all places, and I couldn’t figure out why I felt like I was in such a funk. Now I am back doing what I love in the way that I love. Being out consulting with people, making plans and overcoming obstacles is what I have been missing. I can’t sit in an office and make things happen. Not at this job at least. Do I completely know what I am doing? Not a chance. Do I think I will be successful and will reach my end goal? There is no doubt in my mind. This is how I have lived my life until this point. Whether it was Colorado or Africa, I didn’t know how I would do things or how I would get there, I just knew I would.
I don’t know what the reason is why I strayed from my bullish attitude. I like to think that I needed to absorb more Ghanaian life and culture in order for me to understand what needs to be done, in which order and how to go about it. Meeting with people now seems more fluid than ever. They usually laugh at me because I speak and negotiate like a Ghanaian with a little more of an American, enough with the bullshit, attitude. The other day I even corrected a Ghanaian with their Twi! That one made everyone laugh and one extremely embarrassed Ghanaian! I can now see the needs and how people shy away from addressing them. Maybe it is because they don’t know how or because they are embarrassed of them. Either way, the feedback I get when I share my ideas has been wonderful. Some of the best ideas have come from the locals, which is the way it should be. I’ve made a conscious effort to allow them to “own” these projects and remind them that I am only here to give them a little nudge in the right direction and assure them that they can make anything possible.
(Written June 17, 2013)
Sunday marked two weeks left here in Ghana. It has been strange trying to comprehend that I am leaving after making this my home for 9 months. Each day I can think of so many reasons why I need to stay longer. From continuing to help the school operate better, guiding the new volunteers with the Labour & Trafficking Project or just being able to remain here with my adopted family I have so many things I want to stay for. When I break it down, there would never be a time that I couldn’t stay here to do more on the project or for the school. Knowing that, I feel that it is time to go home, see my family and start on a new adventure while keeping tabs on what I have set-up in Ghana. Sometime in the next couple of years I know that I will return to see the people who are so dear to me and check in on Day Star School and my students. Until then, I have to trust the structure I put in place to keep the school running well and the people who will look after it while I’m not here. I’m excited to see my family and rest after going non-stop this entire month.
(Written June 24, 2013)
Yesterday marked one week left and I celebrated the day by doing a lot, A LOT, of laundry…by hand of course. While I can’t say I will miss that at all, I have been seeing and thinking about all the people and things I will truly miss. Like I have talked about many times, the people who I have met here changed my world in so many ways. Especially my students and the children who I interact with often, there is a special place in my heart for them and all the lessons they have taught me. When I told them about my last day teaching, they didn’t get upset, they were mad! “You mean you won’t come back?” “Ohhh why Sir John?!” That has made it a little harder to think about leaving because my class really does have a special bond with each other. They know in my classroom that they are not allowed to make fun of or laugh at each other and that they are all challenged no matter how advanced or behind they are academically. Not only that, but I feel like they are very comfortable in my class because they know I won’t cane them and take time to work through tough questions or explain why answers are wrong. Certainly, one of the hardest parts about leaving Ghana will be leaving these students.
For the past few weeks my emotions and thoughts have been swirling. Because there has been so much going on with the Day Star School project and 12 new volunteers, I haven’t had much time or space to sit down, process everything and clear my head. During these weeks I have been through just about every feeling in the book and back again. Some things have made me the most frustrated and angry I have ever been here, and there have been times of pure joy and feeling that this is my home and I shouldn’t be leaving. The past few days I have been forcing myself to start closing things up with my activities and in my mind. I love Ghana, as truly wonderful and fucked up as it is (what place isn’t?). In my heart I know I will be back again soon to visit the many people who have opened their hearts and minds to me during my stay and have become my family. For now though, I am mentally, emotionally, physically and whatever else kind of exhausted. Writing about how I feel and the end of this experience seems daunting right now and I promise that I will write about it soon when I have a clear head and a nourished body. It’s time to see my family, sit around the dinner table and laugh until my stomach hurts. Go on this safari with my sister and celebrate our birthdays with some lions and elephants. Catch a ballgame with my brother and drink a beer that will stay cold for more than 5 minutes. The rest will work itself out…
I miss and love you all,